Sapa, Vietnam, June 22
Vietnam (Part 1)
A few hundred meters down the road the bus stopped again and we were led into the Vietnamese immigration building. The sight of prominently displayed Vietnamese flags - a banner of red adorned with the hammer and sickle - as well as some large portraits of Vietnam's father of Communism, Ho Chi Minh, lent an ominous air to the situation. We entered a small, spartan room. Along one side was a counter topped with a low plexiglass barrier. Behind the counter were seated two stone-faced immigration officers in dark green uniforms. Seeing that our bus driver was no longer around to chaperone our passports, we (the foreigners) dropped them on the counter along with the others (the locals) and moved to the back of the room to wait for them to be stamped. Everyone else (mostly Vietnamese we could see from their passports) remained in a small mob in front of the counter, pushing and jostling each other.
The two immigration officers worked slowly and methodically. We noticed that they did not appear to have a very efficient system as rather than stamping passports in order of arrival to the office, they would instead take one of the many being waved in their faces by the crowd every time they looked up. We anxiously awaited the arrival of our bus driver to help us out as he did on the Laos side. Over the next hour a few more busloads of Vietnamese travellers came in and it was not long before our passports were buried under a large pile and most of the room was filled with a chaotic mass of Vietnamese pressing up toward the counter. Our bus driver eventually came in and responding to our exasperated pleas, tried to make his way up front to plead our case with the immigration officers. Apparently, Lao bus drivers have no clout in Vietnam and they ignored him. He gave up and went back out to the bus.
We had to take matters into our own hands. We were tired, frustrated, and generally pissed off - just the right frame of mind for mixing it up with the mob surrounding the counter. Over the next half hour, the seven of us (a Canadian couple, two Brits, an Indian man, Suzanne and myself) pushed, pulled, squeezed, and elbowed our way to the front. Luckily, the Vietnamese were generally about half our size. Once we made it to the counter we had to literally form a human wall to hold the mob back and physically swat away the hands of sneaky little men trying to shove their passports forward at opportune moments. With no more passports being waved in their faces, the robotic immigration officers were able to dig into the massive pile in front of them.
In a brief moment of levity during this stressful experience, the English girl reached over the barrier and picked up the hat of one of the officers, which was lying on the counter. She was just examining it and the officer did not seem to mind (or notice) until she turned it over and with a laugh held it up for all to see. Taped inside the hat were several risque pictures of a Vietnamese woman, apparently cut from a magazine. The officer quickly grabbed the hat back and grumbled some harsh words in Vietnamese.
Gradually, our passports resurfaced and finally received entry stamps. We were elated and exhausted. The whole ordeal had lasted nearly three hours.
We boarded the bus once again and joined the other more immigration-savvy passengers who had been waiting. Once into Vietnam the road conditions improved (i.e. the road was more or less paved) and the sun came out. We drove on through rural hill country, past ubiquitous rice paddies tended by farmers in traditional pointed hats and the occasional water buffalo. I could not help but imagine US Army helicopters flying over the paddies as portrayed in so many war movies. Every time we passed a water-filled depression in the landscape, I wondered if it was a bomb crater.
Around noon we stopped at a roadside restaurant in a small town for lunch. No one spoke English in the place but the proprietor, a middle-aged woman, seemed happy to have us. I secured a table while Sue and the others did their best to order by pointing at the display of various foods in the front of the restaurant.
I was excited to have some authentic Vietnamese food but what we received was a bit disappointing - a bowl of cold, boiled spinach, a bowl of rice, and some pieces of boiled chicken on the bone which were not cooked all the way through. After the meal we learned the hard way one of the most important lessons for travel in Vietnam - always establish the price first. Basically, just about everyone is trying to rip you off. Obviously, things are always much cheaper than they would be at home, but there is always the principle to contend with. Sometimes worth agruing over, but many times not, as we would see... We ended up having to pay 60,000 Dong (US$1 = 15,700 D), or about US$4 for our meal, which was quite ridiculous. Back on the bus we learned from some of the Vietnamese passengers that they had paid 22,000 D total for the three of them! Welcome to Vietnam, epitome of the "tourist price".
We continued on into northern Vietnam and by late afternoon reached the flat countryside of the Red River delta. The heat and humidity seemed to increase with each passing kilometer. Rice paddies stretched out to the horizon on either side of the road. As we passed through small villages and towns, the roadsides were covered with seas of brown grains drying in the sun. Large piles of straw, presumably the chaff of the rice harvest, were gathered here and there near the roadside and out in the paddies. As the sun began to set, these piles were set on fire by the farmers. Both nearby and far away in the distance, plumes of black smoke snaked across the reddish-orange sky. Considering the location and history of the area, it was incredibly surreal.
At seven o'clock we arrived in Hanoi, completing our version of the bus ride from hell. The whole experience has forced me to add a caveat to my newfound joy of bus travel. Along with some of the other foreigners, we hired a taxi to take us to the backpacker ghetto in the Old Quarter section of the city. (And probably got ripped off on the fare...)
My first impression of the Old Quarter can be summed up in two words: motorbike chaos. They were simply everywhere. Choking the roads, weaving through pedestrians, barely yielding at intersections, and practically piling on top of each other at the few stop lights. Not to mention the motorbikes parked on the narrow sidewalks, forcing people on foot to walk into the maelstrom on the road for sport. And all topped off by the incessant blaring of horns. Honk to pass, honk to merge, honk to stop, honk to go, honk if you see your friend, honk if you see a stranger, honk if you're late, honk if you're hungry, basically just keep honking no matter what. It might be more practical and easier on the thumb if the motorbikes (and cars, trucks, and buses) were equipped with a "reverse horn" which emits a constant beep. Pressing the reverse horn button would result in silence for those rare occasions when a beep is not required.
The second thing I noticed was that, mercifully, every shop, restaurant, and hotel had their addresses displayed somewhere on their storefront, usually lit up. And, unlike Laos and Thailand, the alphabet of the Vietnamese language is similar to the Roman character set, well, enough so that the words are legible and sort of pronouncable for English-speaking foreigners. (This turned out to be true all over Vietnam and proved enormously helpful as street signs were often scarce.)
The taxi let us out in the midst of a maze of winding streets in the middle of the Old Quarter. We parted with our fellow foreigners, who were headed elsewhere, and using the guidebook map we found our way to the Anh Dao Hotel. Sue gave the staff a workout looking at rooms and we hauled our packs up six flights of perspiration-inducing stairs to a big, clean, air-conditioned room with hot water and satellite TV. All for US$10, breakfast included. We actually thought that was a bit expensive, but considering what we had just been through, we wanted to splurge on luxury.
We showered and rested in the A/C for a while and then headed back outside to drench ourselves in the evening humidity. We wandered around the congested Old Quarter for a while and found a little restaurant with a terrace overlooking the dirty street. We ate some tasty spring rolls, 'pho' (noodles), and sampled the local brew, Bia Hanoi.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that our "included" buffet breakfast was wholly edible and quite substantial. I filled my plate several times.
We spent the day wandering around the Old Quarter area. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and visited Ngoc So'n Temple on a small island in the lake. The lake area is a favorite haunt of young Vietnamese men carrying around stacks of books to sell to foreigners and we had to fend off offers of Vietnamese phrasebooks several times.
We visited the National Museum of Vietnamese History and then the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution where the nation's struggle for independence and the rise of Communism is explored, including many exhibits about the "Anti-American Resistance War". They were lots of black and white photographs and displays of relics from past wars, all captioned with a suitable amount of propaganda.
In the evening we went to see a performance of the internationally-known artists of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. This is a really interesting art form. The stage consists of a waist-deep pool of water over which is built the scenery. Hidden behind (or underneath) the scenery, the puppeteers stand in the water and mainpulate the puppets using long poles in such a way that the puppets appear to walk (or run, dance, swim, jump, fly, etc.) on the surface of the water in front of the audience. Coupled with live music, exposition and singing in Vietnamese, and various (loud) special effects, various Vietnamese folk tales are acted out by the puppets. Even with the language barrier it was enjoyable, if a bit hard to follow.
As it was a Sunday morning, we walked through the Old Quarter to what was labelled on the map as "Protestant Church", only to find that the service had been at 7:30 in the morning. Some students who were at the church told us of an English-speaking church which met in one of Hanoi's large hotels. They kindly arranged a couple of motorcycle taxis (or, guys with motorcycles) to drive us across town to the hotel. We arrived to find the church service, the International Christian Fellowship, had not yet begun and tea, coffee, and cookies were being served. We helped ourselves generously. The congregation was all expats, many of them Americans. Practicing Christianity is technically not allowed by the Vietnamese government, and only foreign passport holders are allowed to attend the services of the church. Afterward, we talked with a few people there and received some good advice on travelling within Vietnam.
Leaving the hotel, we found our two motorcycle drivers waiting (or at least we thought it was the same two guys at the time, but afterward concluded it was two different guys with motorcycles) and, after getting lost in some small sidestreets, they drove us over to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum near Ba Dinh Square. Uncle Ho's mausoleum was closed, so unfortunately we did not get to see his well-preserved remains. (Allegedly, once a year, the corpse is sent to Russia for a make-over; over the years the Russians have perfected this art maintaining the remains of Stalin. However, we heard another rumor that the "corpse" is actually a very well-made wax replica.)
From the mausoleum we walked over to the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum for a second and more well presented dose of Vietnamese Communist history. It was actually a pretty good museum, and new, having been opened in 1990. The museum contained a wide array of documents, photographs, exhibits, films, and even artistic works detailing the life and work of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Nguyen Ai Quoc), the "founder and beloved leader of the Vietnamese people's armed forces."
Leaving the museum, we proceeded to get lost and ended up walking exactly the opposite direction we intended to. Obviously in a non-touristed part of town, we drew a good number of curious looks. With the unbearable humidity, being lost quickly became no fun. To lift our spirits, we decided to stop at a 'bia ho'i' (draft beer) stall on the side of the road. We sat at a plastic table on the sidewalk and a woman served us two glasses of coldish beer from a metal keg with a block of ice sitting on top. She also gave us a big bowl of peanuts. After finishing a beer or two and all of the peanuts, I ordered a bowl of mystery noodles from a stall across the street. With a goodly helping of chilli sauce, I was soon, unbelievably, sweating even more than I had been before.
WHen it came time to move on, we had another episode of Vietnamese price gouging, since we had not clearly established the price of a beer beforehand. This led to some quarrelling between us and the woman and her son (which was tough since they spoke little to no English), but we had to finally give in. Then we just quarrelled amongst ourselves. And we were still more or less lost, because I wasn't sure where we were on the map. So, when we eventually gave up and spent the money to hire two motorcylcle taxis to take us back to the Old Quarter, we were in a pretty sour mood. Basically, Sue was fed up with all of the bargaining and budget living and she let me know in no uncertain terms. Probably the heat and the city had something to do with it as well. We argued it out until we felt better and then Sue took a nap while I went to check email.
In the morning we called Sue's father to wish him a happy Father's Day, which was pretty good timing because Sue seemed to be in a better mood. This was jeopardized, however, when I had to run back to the hotel to get some cash because we did not have enough to pay for the call (and lose about three pounds in perspiration in the process), but we were able to laugh about it afterward.
Most of the rest of the day was spent taking a much deserved break watching TV in the air-conditioning instead of feeling pressured to do more sightseeing. For dinner we found a tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving some fantastic Vietnamese homecooking: sweet and sour noodles and fried dumplings.
Our plan for the next few days was to take a train up to the Hoang Lien So'n Mountains in northwestern Vietnam to do some relaxing outside of the city. We had heard and read that the scenery was spectacular and hiking was a popular activity. Sounded like much needed therapy for us. We picked one of the dozens of travel agencies in the area and looked into buying train tickets. Since our wedding anniversary would be over the weekend, we decided to splurge for the more expensive air-conditioned sleeper car. While working this out with the women working in the office, another woman (who also worked in the office) arrived with her new wedding photos. Her wedding was coming up the following week. (Apparently, in Vietnam it is customary to have your photos taken before the actual wedding day.) Sue pulled out the small photo she carries with her from our wedding day and the women were off and running with wedding talk. I sat back until I couldn't take anymore and then managed to finish the train ticket transaction. We bought the air-con sleeper class tickets, but the only catch was that we had to pick up the return tickets once in Sapa. The woman gave me a name and address of a hotel I was to go to get the return tickets and we were off.
During the day we ran some errands at the bank and post office, tried unsuccessfully to find a movie theatre showing films in English (or even subtitled in English), and then spent a long while sitting near the lake and people-watching. Towards evening we retrieved our packs from the travel agency and took a taxi to the train station. The arrangements we had made put us in an "air-con sleeping car" and it was better than expected. The air was cold, berths decently comfortable, and free bottled water and sweet rolls were supplied. Also in our car was a pleasant Australian couple and we chatted for a while before going to sleep.
The train arrived in the town of Bac Ha at the miserable hour of 5:00 am and we stumbled onto the platform with our gear, including an armful of water bottles and sweet rolls left untouched by passengers in other berths. (We later had a good laugh at our pathetic thriftiness.) By 6:00 am we were aboard a bus with a bunch of other foreigners heading to the town of Sapa, a little over an hour away. Sapa is sort of the main central town of this mountainous area, and well prepared to receive the tourists who mostly come to see the colorful Saturday market, where people from the various hill tribes of the region come to sell their goods.
The bus dropped us in front of what appeared to be the main backpacker budget hotel in town. They didn't have any rooms ready so early in the morning, so we walked around a bit and found a much better place called the Ph'o'ng Ho'a'ng (Phoenix) Hotel down the road. They were practically empty, as most people probably don't walk far from the center of town in search of accomodation, and we scored a great room with private bath and a huge balcony affording a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains, including Fan Si Pan, the tallest in the Indo-China region. The view of the verdant valley below, covered with tiered rice paddies, was equally striking.
The weather was cool and breezy - a welcome change from sweltering Hanoi. We both took long, hot showers and settled in for a nap. We ate some of our newly acquired sweet rolls for lunch and then set off to look around. The region is home to a few different hill tribes, notably the Hmong, Zao, and Giay peoples. The town's streets were filled with them, mostly Hmong, easy to spot from their traditional dark blue clothing and silver jewelry. Wherever we walked, Hmong women, from the very old to the very young, were sure to approach us selling various items including textiles made of hemp (bags, blankets, shirts), jewelry, and other small trinkets.
Late in the afternoon we went to one of the town's many small restaurants for dinner and ate some "hotpot", similar to that we had had in Malaysia. A typically Chinese dish (and we were pretty close to the Chinese border), an urn of boiling broth is brought out and placed on a heat source of some type along with a plate of vegetables and possibly meat as well. We opted for the vegetarian hotpot and basically just made our own vegetable soup.
After we ate we walked over to the town center to have a look at the large Catholic church dominating the cityscape and found that a mass was beginning. The church was packed and we went in and sat down, men on one side and women on the other. It was strange to see a church like that filled mostly with hill tribe people, dressed in their traditional outfits. We were the only foreigners. Of course the liturgy was given in Vietnamese, but it was really interesting to hear the congregation giving the responses. It was like Gregorian chanting with an Asian twist.
After mass, we were befriended by two young Hmong girls who had seen us in the service. Their names were Lei and Chai and they were about ten years old. Amzaingly, they spoke very good English, as well as Vietnamese, Hmong, some French, and probably some other hill tribe languages. Although they did learn some English in school, mostly they learned from talking with tourists. They told us that their village was about an hour's walk from Sapa, a trip they made several times per week. (Some nights they would sleep at the hotel where their mothers worked.) They walked us back to our hotel and we ended up buying a few small items from them. We told them that we planned to go for a hike to see the Hmong villages in the morning, so maybe we would see them.
In the morning, after a breakfast of more sweet rolls, we packed a day bag and headed out for our hike. To our surprise we found Lei and Chai waiting for us outside the hotel. They said that they would accompany us on our hike, which we thought was great because they obviously knew the way. We had a rough map, but having Lei and Chai proved much better, as they led us on a shortcut which crossed through some very scenic areas leading down to the bottom of the valley.
They led us first across a bridge over a river to the Hmong village of Lao Chai, surrounded by tiered rice paddies reflecting the sunlight. We went into the one-room school building and talked a bit with the schoolteacher, a young man whose home was the far end of the classroom. Before leaving the village, Sue bought a handbag from an old woman with dye-stained hands. From there we walked through a Dao village where the women wear a very distinctive red headdress. After stopping for lunch (bread, water, and bananas), we crossed back over the river and uphill to the mountain road leading back to Sapa. Almost seven hours later we limped back into town. We gave Lei and Chai a few thousand Dong for their help and headed back to the hotel.
Today we rented a motorbike to see some of the area north of Sapa, towards the Chinese border. Unlike other places where we had rented motorbikes in Southeast Asia, the popular model was the old Russian Minsk motorcycle rather than the newer Honda scooters. Seriously, the bike almost looked like something out of a 1950's movie. After practicing a bit with the clutch and learning the gears, we rode out of town.
The views along the road we fabulous, and became increasingly more beautiful as we climbed into the mountains. Our first stop was at the Thac Bac Waterfall, sporting a 500 meter drop right down to the road with the water directed underneath into a drainage pipe and then further down into the valley below. We opted to skip the climb to the top and continue on.
After another hour or so we arrived at Tram Ton Pass, affording great views of Fan Si Pan to the south and the mountainous border of China to the north. The area is known as the 'Roof of Indo-China', and it was obvious why. We pressed on down towards the valley on the other side, but soon found that the road was under construction with lots of gravel and mud. It also began to rain a bit, so we turned back. Along the way we passed the occasional roadside fruit stand where apricots and a bizzare variety of plum were the main offerings. (We tried both.)
Today was a Saturday and also our one year wedding anniversary, so we thought what better way to celebrate than by spending the day in the famous Sapa weekend market. We wandered through the market (which was nowhere near as big as I had expected) for a couple of hours, looking at various items, but not too long for fear of being surrounded by a throng of old Hmong and Dao women practically dressing you in their wares. (Yes, that happened to me once and I learned my lesson.) For lunch, we stopped at one of the market stalls for some tasty noodle soup.
Late in the afternoon, the bright blue sky became littered with a few dark clouds and some light sunshowers were falling off and on. We had to catch a bus back to Bac Ha in the evening to take the overnight train back to Hanoi, so we decided to celebrate our anniversary with one last meal in Sapa. We settled on the restaurant at the back of a hotel on the town's main road with a terrace overlooking the valley. Adding to the scene was a double rainbow reaching between the mountains. (We had considered treating ourselves to a really nice meal in the town's fanciest hotel, and actually went to go see it, but in the end decided that did not tie in to the overall theme of our journey. We would save that for another time and place.) We ordered up another hotpot, this time with meat and vegetables and cooked ourselves some soup.
We had picked the spot for it's seclusion from the roaming Hmong saleswomen, but eventually they found us. As we were eating a couple of old, tired-looking women came and sat next to us and ran through their spiel half-heartedly (speaking in Hmong, of course). I smiled and nodded as blankets and shirts were draped over me, while maintaining a constant stream of "Khong, cam on" ("No, thank you"). If we really had more room in our packs, we actually probably would have bought something. After exhausting all textile items and jewelry, one of the women went for the last ditch effort:
"Ganga?", she asked with a raised eyebrow while producing a small bag of the green stuff.
Sue and I almost spit out our soup in surprise and amusement. After turning her down one last time, she sighed, collected her wares, and slowly walked away.
Early in the evening, we rode the bus back to Bac Ha with a group of other foreigners. We boarded the train to find that our travel agent had either made a mistake or scammed us because instead of the nice air-conditioned berths we rode in on the way up, we instead had berths with a (lame) fan, hard mattresses, and no free water or bread. Fortunately, we had good cabinmates, John and Olivia from Canada, and so we made the best of it, trading travel stories and eating peanut butter.
Bridge to Ngoc So'n Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Sue haggling over a lychee purchase on the street, Hanoi
The Opera House (Nha Hat Lo'n), Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (1), Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (2), Hanoi
"Uncle Ho", Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hanoi
Sue at a roadside Bia Hoi stand, Hanoi
Dave eating a crazy hot bowl of pho (noodles) at the Bia Hoi stand (note jar of chilli sauce and resultant red face), Hanoi
Football match in the town square, Sapa
Catholic Church, Sapa
Two rainbows, Sapa
A rainbow, Sapa
View of Mount Fan Si Pan from the balcony of our hotel room, Sapa
Another view of the valley from our hotel room, Sapa
On the trail to the H'mong village, Sapa
Looking up the valley toward the H'mong village, Sapa
Suzanne, Lei, Chai, and Dave hiking in Sapa
Rice paddies in the valley, Sapa
Bridge leading to the H'mong village, Sapa
Chai, Lei, and Suzanne on the bridge, Sapa
Peace, sister! (H'mong village, Sapa)
Working in the H'mong village, Sapa
Schoolroom, H'mong village, Sapa
Sue working a deal, H'mong village, Sapa
Sue, her new bag, and her new friend, H'mong village, Sapa
H'mong village, Sapa
Digging for gold in the Zhao village, Sapa
Government office, Middle of Nowhere, Sapa
H'mong girls in the cornfield, Sapa
Chai, Suzanne, and Lei taking a break on the walk back to Sapa
Walking the family pet, Sapa
Tram Thon Pass between Sapa and Lai Chau
Remains of a French house overlooking the valley on the road to Lai Chau
Checking out the valley acoustics (note farmer's tan), Sapa
Sapa Market (1)
Sapa Market (2)
Sapa Market (3)
Sapa Market (4)
Sapa Market (5)
Sapa Market (6)
Sapa Market (7)
Sapa Market (8)
Sapa Market (9)
Celebrating our first wedding anniversary at the Sapa Market